Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Jarring Turn-about

Both the teachings regarding prayer in Luke 18 include an explanation of the teaching as well as a parable illustrating it. In verses 1-8 we are given a parable about the "need to pray always and not to lose heart."  In Luke 18:9-14, the gospel lesson appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we are given a parable aimed at "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."  While the first parable announces the good news that God hears our prayers, the second parable is a word of law, which calls us back to reality whenever we are wont to say, "I am not like other people."  We do well to heed such a word.

(The following questions follow a method which gets at some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  For a detailed look at this method, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Luther sometimes said that the Word is like a hammer, breaking the rock in pieces.  Here we have a clear example of that. The Pharisee in the parable thanks God that he is "not like other people."  He basks in the righteousness of his own making.  He is content with a life lived entirely with "I" as the subject of every sentence.  In so doing he misses out on the righteousness which only God can grant, and the justification that God alone can give.  He misses out on the complete forgiveness and righteousness of God and trusts in himself.  The truth, which he does not see, is that he is like other people, and along with all others he needs the forgiveness that only God can bestow.  The Word in this parable, then, functions as Law, pointing us to our need for Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is well hidden here, if not absent.  When the Word functions as Gospel it announces, "Here is Jesus, for you!"  There is no word like that here.  Having said that, we hear Jesus announcing that the tax collector who cried out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" is justified.  This is certainly a gospel function.  This word reminds us that God does justify those who come to God humbly.  This word then encourages us to trust in this God who justifies.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Many a writer has pointed out that we who are "church folks" are more like the Pharisee in the parable than anyone else.  We who serve and give and pray and sing somehow are very prone to self-righteousness  and to a hidden pride which clings to the fallacy that we are "not like other people."  We need to pray for the miracle of repentance which comes to the tax collector, for we truly are like other people, as in bondage to sin as any.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The final verse in this text gives us some wonderful couplets:  humbled/exalted; condemned/justified; trusting self/trusting God.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several telling details in this parable: 1)  The Pharisee's prayer is 33 words long; the prayer of the tax collector is 7 words long.  2)  The subject of the Pharisee's prayer is "I" four times; the subject of the tax collector's prayer is God.  3)  The Pharisee stands "by himself" indicating that he "trusts in himself"; the tax collector stands "far off" indicating his sense of unworthiness.  Another thing to be aware of is that these two characters are stock characters in Jesus' day; that is to say, they have expected characteristics.  In our day, a joke might begin, "A priest, a rabbi, and a lumberjack entered a bar."  Each one of those characters is a stock character with which we associate certain attributes.  So with Pharisees and tax collectors in Jesus' day.  What's most interesting is that the Pharisee was assumed to be righteous and the tax collector was assumed to be a scoundrel.  The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible gives this description of Pharisees:  "law-abiding, righteous, pious, religious folk." (III, 774)  Tax-collectors, on the other hand, are given these characteristics: "traitorous, base, despicable, greedy, 'robbers', excluded by common consent." (IV, 522).  This is interesting because for Jesus' listeners, the turn-around in this story would have been jarring.  The unrighteous one is the one who goes"down to his home justified", while the pious Pharisee does not.  We do well to attempt to enter into this jarring experience by substituting modern stock characters who might fit these molds.

Blessings on your proclamation!

1 comment: